Yeah… I’m walking into a minefield here. I know.
But maybe I’ll get lucky and it’ll blow off my right leg so that I won’t have to deal with it anymore.
So… sexism in our entertainment. The unfair stereotypes and expectations applied to female characters as opposed to male ones.
And no, I’m not talking about how “hypersexualized” female characters are. I think we’ve all heard that one. How the few female leads that occur in our media are set to this impossible standard of beauty. While that may be true to some extent, the counterpoint (that male characters are just as idealized) that is given isn’t exactly wrong.
Let’s be honest, you don’t see too many frumpy, overweight, balding male protagonists in books, movies, or games. Our lead characters will generally lean towards a cultural ideal… male or female.
That’s too easy of a discussion that doesn’t require too much introspection as to how we regard the “fairer sex.” It’s too easy of a debate to dismiss by those who want to avoid the accusation and/or discussion because on that superficial aspect, they’re right. You’re just arguing about the degree at that point.
And it also becomes too easy of a way for some writers (and this tends to be more true in books) to seem like they are “in touch” with the female audience by creating a character and describing them as “plain” or “average”… all the while shaping a story setting in which they are most demonstrably not.
There’s nothing wrong with having an attractive character. That isn’t sexist in and of itself. But it’s the lowest common denominator for people to have the debate without actually having to confront anything that might truly require people to actually think.
What I think the debate should be is how female characters are viewed by the audience (and this is something that men and women have been observed to be guilty of). Simply put, it doesn’t matter how effective the female character is, it doesn’t matter how good she is at her job, what she accomplished… the first question that tends to pop up is, “Is she hot or not?”
And even as I look at that previous paragraph, that doesn’t really do the debate justice either. Because it’s not something that can be “simply put.” Because it’s not that the audience dismisses what the female character does. It’s not that don’t appreciate the character’s actions and the story and her inner workings. It’s that the female character’s appearance tends to be the “top of the mind” thought that simply doesn’t happen with male characters.
I’m going to use an example in video games (simply because this was an example in the discussion I had last night that prompted this essay today). In the Uncharted series, you have the character Nathan Drake, who is pretty much the stylized, idealized male protagonist that is in overabundance in gaming. He is pretty much every male hero stereotype out there squeezed into one; rugged good looks, stoic yet with moments of intense emotion to show how “deep” he is underneath the shell, physically fit and strong, excellent combatant, troubled past… I think you get the picture. As odd as it may sound to say someone so adept would be “average”… he’s the perfectly average male hero.
When you ask someone about his character, what tends to be the first sentence? Some variant of “He’s cool” or “He’s a badass”? That’s my experience.
Now, let’s examine the case of Bayonetta, the titular witch of the game of the same name. Another pretty deep character, troubled past, fighter, very reserved yet with those moments where the wall cracks slightly… she’s the same sort of character deep down.
But what is the first thing you hear when you ask someone about her? In my findings it tends to be either, “She’s hot” or a bit of a pause before they find something else to say. While some may claim it’s unfair to judge based on what isn’t said, I feel rather confident that I know exactly what that first thought was.
Now make no mistake, these same people will almost always follow up with reams of pertinent material to these characters that don’t have anything to do with physical appearance. Nor is it uniformly true (there will always be exceptions in both cases). But it’s that initial thought, that preliminary value judgment, where I think the heart of sexism in our entertainment flourishes.
Female characters seem inexorably attached to that physical ideal far more often than male characters are, even though both have a tendency to follow those ideals. It’s a problem I myself have struggled with in my writings. Sure, I have my “plain” female characters like Fiona, but she and others like her are only secondary characters. My main female protagonists, like Rumil and Amanda and Talia (though the latter thinks she’s very plain), all are either reasonably or incredibly attractive.
Yet, I don’t think that‘s the problem. For example, Amanda has absolutely no problems with her appearance and sexuality. She knows she’s desirable, and doesn’t pretend otherwise. But she refuses to let that define her, and does her best to not be bothered when others do (though not always successfully). Maybe that’s the ticket. Or maybe I’m just fooling myself.
Sure, the advertisement and market of our entertainment doesn’t help (how many female leads are inevitably immortalized on posters and flyers via butt or full figure shots after all), but I think that’s just a symptom that feeds off the prejudice that’s already there. So how do we fight it?
Well, as content creators, what we can do is create characters that don’t have their “pretty” or “sexy” looks commented on every chapter or scene. Heads don’t have to turn every time the character appears (the world doesn’t lack cute girls, folks… most men settle on a cursory glance before going on with their day, just sayin’). Your first shot of the female lead doesn’t always have to be of her butt or her breasts as she’s coming out of a pool or entering through the doorway.
And I know that’s not always the case. But those sort of “look at her” moments are frequent enough to reinforce that the audience is supposed to focus first and foremost on the character’s appearance. Maybe we, as content creators, need to be more aware of this, and actively fight against it.
I know I’ll try. Hopefully I’ll succeed.